FOXBOROUGH — Running back depth has been an issue for the Patriots all summer. Well, at least it was until New England’s 23-22 exhibition game win over the Bears on Thursday night at Gillette Stadium.
LeGarrette Blount, James White, and Tyler Gaffney are apparently sick of hearing that the Patriots need to sign some reinforcements pronto.
All three have been camp iron men and played strong first halves in helping the Patriots overcome an early 11-0 deficit and take a 17-11 lead at intermission.
Blount showed both his trademark bruising style and his deceptive nimbleness as he rushed 11 times for 69 yards and played into the third quarter.
Among his highlights were a 21-yard scamper where he left a defender flat-footed at the line with a nifty stutter step before steaming into the secondary and a 1-yard touchdown run where he flattened a pair of Bears. He added to his nifty night when he contributed a 15-yard, one-cut, bounce-out run that he punctuated with a stiff-arm to Chris Prosinski’s chest.
It’s been a nice bounce-back summer for Blount, whose 2015 campaign ended abruptly when he suffered a hip injury in December in Houston.
White, often the forgotten man of the backfield bunch, brought the crowd to its feet with a 14-yard catch and run from Jimmy Garoppolo to the 1-yard line, setting up Blount’s TD run.
White slipped several tackles and showed good lateral quickness and burst on the run.
Gaffney continues to make his push for a roster spot, rushing times for 11 times for 31 yards. He also snagged three catches for another 11 yards.
Gaffney runs low and hard, and with Donald Brown and D.J. Foster spending most of the their recent camp time on the conditioning field, the opportunities have been there for Gaffney and he’s been taking advantage of them.
Coach Bill Belichick was impressed by the progress of the running game over the last week.
“It was consistent, more consistent plays, whereas last week we had whatever it was, six [or] seven negative runs, and a couple of longer ones that kind of made the yardage look OK,’’ said the coach. “Always our No. 1 goal is to keep the ball moving forward . . . stay out of long yardage [situations] by making positive plays. I though we did a much better job of that, we had a lot of 3- and 4-yard plays.’’
Among other observations:
■ Brandon Bolden had the only negative in the run game, fumbling inside the 5-yard line on New England’s second possession.
■ Chris Hogan suited up for the first time and made an immediate impact. The receiver made four catches (on five targets) for 53 yards.
“I had a lot of emotions coming into this game — my first game as a Patriot, at home, which was a lot of fun for me,’’ he said. “I’m an emotional guy out there, so I was excited about it.’’
He caught a pair of passes — including a 20-yarder from Garoppolo during an expertly run two-minute drill near at the end of the half.
“That’s something we work on a lot and we’ll continue to work on it, and we’ll continue to improve,’’ said Hogan. “But it was good for us to get into that situation and be able to execute the way we did.’’
■ Fresh off a strong week of camp that saw him rotate in with the first-teamers, defensive tackle Anthony Johnson was a first-half monster.
The second-year player who had brief stops in Miami and Washington last season helped fill the very large void created by Alan Branch’s suspension. He has sneaky quickness after slimming down from the 325 pounds he played at with the Dolphins to the 290 he’s playing at now. He finished with a pair of tackles, including a half-sack and a pass defensed.
“It feels good to be out there playing with a great group of guys with a great organization like the Patriots,’’ said Johnson. “I haven’t been on the field in a long time and I love the game of football.’’
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■ Tight end A.J. Derby continued to build on his spectacular summer résumé, grabbing a game-high six catches and a 16-yard touchdown pass from Garoppolo.
His best play, however, came in the third quarter when he hauled in a 26-yard pass from rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett despite tight coverage and a big hit from Prosinski.
“Jacoby made a good check on the line,’’ said Derby. “He made a really good throw and the offensive line did a really good job giving him time to get the throw off.’’
■ Trey Flowers was credited with a half-sack as the defensive end filled in for Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard. The second-year player has 2.5 sacks in three career exhibition games and is solidifying his spot in the rotation on a daily basis.
■ Brissett finished 9 of 13 for 87 yards but was sacked three times for 9 yards. He made mostly smart decisions, including the sacks.
■ The chippy play between the teams during the joint practices was nonexistent on game night.
■ Both teams achieved their goal of avoiding injuries, with the only exception being Chicago cornerback Jacoby Glenn, who left with a concussion.